Posted: October 22, 2013, 11:15 a.m. EDT
Sincere commitment to community and customer service are the keys to the growth of the Loyal Biscuit Co. concern.
By Lizett Bond
The city of Rockland, Maine, might be home to the Maine Lobster Festival, but it’s the furry, four-legged denizens of this city that really know how to put on a show. The zany World Championship Boatyard Dog Trials find canine entrants and their humans competing in a variety of tongue-in-cheek events with a rule stating that participants must finish completely soaked to qualify for an award. Whether dogs or lobsters, for this tight-knit community, it’s all about being involved and having a good time.
Jumping right into the hub of activity is Loyal Biscuit Co., Pet Product News International’s Retailer of the Year for Outstanding Growth. In fact, Loyal Biscuit Co.’s mascot and logo model, a black lab mix, is the 2011 World Champion Boatyard Dog.
"Loyal Biscuit actually sponsored the competition in our first year, and so for the second year, we thought it would be fun to enter our dog, Fenway,” said Heidi Vanorse Neal, co-owner with husband Joel Neal of Loyal Biscuit, with locations in Rockland and nearby Camden and Belfast.
"Never in a million years did we think we would win,” said Heidi. "But we did.”
Championships aside, Heidi and Joel recognize that a sincere commitment to their community is the key to the growth of their business.
"Our philosophy is all about community relations and customer care,” said Joel. "We want our customers to have nothing but good things to say and then pass it along.”
Heidi, Chuck, Joel and Fenway. Loyal Biscuit Co.
Three years ago, after a 15-year career as an executive in Rockland’s banking arena, Heidi was ready for a change. One day she mentioned her dream of owning a pet supply store to Joel, who is a Rockland police officer.
"I was a customer of Loyal Biscuit,” said Heidi. "Joel suggested I call the owner and let her know I wanted to buy the business.”
Serendipity was at the helm, however, and Heidi discovered that the establishment was, in fact, already for sale.
"Joel and I talked to the owner, went home and played with some numbers,” she said. "Then I quit my job, and we bought a dog store.”
That was in December 2010; Loyal Biscuit had been in business for more than two years prior to the purchase. Upon taking over, the couple was off and running, and in June 2011, the Belfast store opened, followed by the Camden location in February 2012.
"The Camden store was an existing pet business, we converted it to a Loyal Biscuit,” she said.
During these three years, Loyal Biscuit Co. has experienced remarkable growth.
"Since adding our Belfast and Camden locations, our gross sales for 2012 increased by 99.58 percet,” Heidi said.
Attributing this increase to community outreach and outstanding customer service, Heidi added that the goal of Loyal Biscuit Co. is to ensure that the shopping experience surpasses the average dog food transaction, prompting shoppers to spread the word.
"All three stores continue to increase gross sales over the previous year by 10 to 21 percent monthly,” she said. "I think the personality of each store is a huge part of our growth; our staff is fabulous.”
Today Heidi divides her time among the three stores, with seven part-time employees picking up the slack.
Each Loyal Biscuit is laid out in similar fashion, with inventory, shelving, wall colors and logo all touting one unified brand at all locations. The only difference among the three locations is that the Camden store is situated in an old mill with wood floor and beams, lending a more rustic ambience.
As a healthful, all-natural pet supply store, Loyal Biscuit carries dog and cat foods and treats that are wheat, corn and soy byproduct free, and it offers frozen raw.
Heidi noted that with the many variables to pet nutrition, directing consumers to foods that might be a solution to a particular issue, while staying within budget constraints, is a priority.
"We want to provide the healthiest diet available to dogs and cats at a variety of price ranges,” she said.
In addition, Loyal Biscuit offers a full line of pet supplies for dogs and cats.
"We try to stay USA made whenever possible,” Heidi said. "Quality is very important to us, and it’s one of the things our customers have come to expect from our store.”
Each location also features a self-serve dog wash with two stations. In fall 2013, the Belfast store will begin offering grooming as well.
"One of our staff members wanted to become a groomer,” Heidi said. "We have experienced demand there, so we are meeting that demand.”
Customer satisfaction is paramount; standing behind products sold and resolving any issues is crucial, according to Joel.
"We try to do the right thing, anytime, all the time,” he said.
Tourist season runs from June to December, and during this time, Heidi stocks up on collars and toys along with local souvenirs.
"I think our business might go up 30 percent in the summer, especially in Rockland,” she said. "It’s a city of about 8,000 people, and in the summer there are 30,000 to 40,000 people here on any given day, with closer to 100,000 during the Maine Lobster Festival.”
Diversification is another aspect to the steady growth of Loyal Biscuit, witnessed by the outfit’s recent launch of the Fidelis Biscuit Co. line of organic dog treats.
At a Glance
Loyal Biscuit Co.
Locations: 442 Main St., Rockland, ME 04841; 39 Mechanic St., Camden, ME 04843; 1 Belmont Ave., Belfast, ME 04915
Co-owners: Heidi Vanorse Neal and Joel Neal
Size: Average is 1,700 square feet
Employees: 1 full-time, 7 part-time
Years in Business: 3
Products and Services Offered: Boutique, cat and dog supplies and premium foods, feline satellite location for shelters, self-serve dog wash, Fidelis Biscuits, Tug Me Toy, frequent buyer program, educational seminars.
Using a recipe developed by employee and baker April Thibodeau, the treats are packaged in a biodegradable bag and placed within a reusable, food-safe tin.
"It’s a very green treat,” Heidi said. "April does all of our baking, and these cookies are available wholesale as well.”
With a baker on staff, canine cookie treats figure prominently in the retail product mix. Bakery cases at each checkout counter display a variety of cookie shapes, including the Loyal Biscuit logo. As a nod to tourism, lobster-shaped cookies and white bones with a frosted "Maine” written on top are popular offerings.
In addition, some area hotels purchase cookies to place in designated pet-friendly rooms.
Local and visiting pets alike fall in love with the Loyal Biscuit Tug Me Toy. Recently launched under the Loyal Biscuit name, the toy was created by a local designer. The washable toy, made of polyester fleece, is available in all three locations and carried in stores throughout the East Coast.
"It’s hand braided and available in three sizes,” Heidi said. "I love this toy.”
Both the Tug Me Toy and Fidelis Biscuits are available on the Loyal Biscuit website, allowing tourists to continue to shop once they return home.
During travel season and year-round, the self-serve dog wash serves double duty as spa and marketing tool. Dog washes are often donated to groups for use as raffle items or gifts. Additionally, coupons for free washes are placed in pet-friendly hotel rooms.
"We get a lot of tourist business that way,” Heidi said. "It has really been helpful in Camden and Belfast because we are not on the main street, like in Rockland.”
Cars sporting Loyal Biscuit bumper stickers, available in each store, might find a special coupon (carried by Loyal Biscuit employees at all times) on their windshield stating "Thank you for shopping with us, please enjoy a free dog wash.”
"It’s always so cool to be driving along and see a Loyal Biscuit sticker on a car,” Heidi said.
The couple emphasized their commitment to community, noting that all Loyal Biscuit events include a fundraising component. Two local community shelters serving all three markets are beneficiaries of that dedication. Heidi serves on the boards of both shelters.
Along these lines, cats searching for that forever home have an opportunity to do so at the Rockland and Belfast satellite adoption centers for cats and kittens, situated within each location. Since January 2012, the Rocklin store has placed 75 cats; Belfast has placed more than 30 since July 2011.
Reuniting lost pets with their families was the goal of The Micro-Chip and Chocolate Chips event, which combined chipping of pets with an old-fashioned bake sale to benefit the Pope Memorial Humane Society in nearby Thomaston.
Educational seminars are frequent. First-aid classes are presented to benefit the Maine POM (Pet Oxygen Masks) Project; proceeds from these classes go toward purchasing enough pet oxygen masks for every fire department in Maine.
"We usually end up being able to donate four or five masks at $75 apiece,” Heidi said.
The new Loyal Biscuit Round Up program provides another avenue to benefit local rescue organizations and shelters. Customers wishing to round up to the next dollar on a purchase may do so at the register; the extra change is donated to a different group each month.
"Our first month, I expected to raise $500 to $800,” Heidi said. "Instead, we raised $500 the first week.”
Reaching out into the community is another strong component to the Loyal Biscuit credo. For example, Pints for Paws fundraisers find Loyal Biscuit partnering with local restaurants to donate one dollar of every pint of beer served to benefit local shelters. The soiree features live entertainment, raffles and a silent auction.
"We usually hold it mid-week, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights,” she added.
In the store, employees serve as key emissaries when it comes to Loyal Biscuit’s principles of customer satisfaction.
"We look for personality, first and foremost,” Heidi said. "We have the philosophy that we can train anyone in terms of nutrition and products, but you can’t teach friendly.”
Employee education begins with one-on-one training with Heidi and continues with staff meetings, information charts and vendor-provided training.
"We also support self education and research,” added Joel.
Facebook is another means Loyal Biscuit Co. uses to provide information to its customers.
"We have 3,000 fans currently on Facebook, and we post there often,” Heidi said. "All of our events are there, too, along with photos of cats available for adoption.”
Shoppers joining Fenway’s Frequent Buyer Program receive a $10 dollar gift certificate for every $250 in purchases.
"We also offer the frequent buyer programs offered by the foods that we carry,” Heidi added. "We keep track of everything for the customer on our POS system.”
For the future, the busy couple plans to remain active in the community and concentrate on their existing concerns. However, future expansion is not ruled out.
"By focusing our efforts on assisting local community groups, and getting our customers involved, our business will grow,” Heidi said. "This is a philosophy we have followed since purchasing the store in January 2012.”
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